Trump’s anti-minority statements hit a low point

Which America will it be, the tolerant one or the intolerant one? Unfortunately, the occupant in the White House is doing his best to stoke support for the latter.
Saturday 20/07/2019
Not easily intimidated. US Representative Ayanna Pressley speaks as Ilhan Abdullahi Omar (L), Rashida Tlaib (2nd R) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hold a news conference to address remarks made by US President Donald Trump, July 15. (AFP)
Not easily intimidated. US Representative Ayanna Pressley speaks as Ilhan Abdullahi Omar (L), Rashida Tlaib (2nd R) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hold a news conference to address remarks made by US President Donald Trump, July 15. (AFP)

Although no stranger to anti-minority and xenophobic statements, US President Donald Trump hit a low point July 14 when he said four progressive Democratic congresswomen of minority backgrounds should “go back” to the “crime-infested places from which they came.”

Not only was this statement highly offensive, it was absurd and racist. Three of the four women were born in the United States, and the fourth, Ilhan Omar, has been a naturalised US citizen since she was a teenager.

That two of the women, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Omar of Minnesota, are of Muslim background recalled Trump’s anti-Muslim tirades from the 2016 presidential campaign.

After his July 14 statement, Trump doubled down on his demagoguery, accusing the four congresswomen of “hating America” and “hating Israel.”

These statements and comments prompted the Democratic-led US House of Representatives to pass a resolution condemning Trump’s remarks. Only four Republicans voted for the resolution, indicating how divided the country has become and that many Republican politicians are afraid to criticise Trump.

Prior to this episode, the Democratic Party was embroiled in internal battles on such issues as impeachment, health care and border security. While those issues are contentious, what unites Democrats is their loathing of Trump, for which he gives them ample fodder.

Some Republicans said the president went too far or counselled restraint. Trump’s erstwhile Republican ally in the US Senate, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, after charging that the four congresswomen were “communists,” offered Trump some public advice — to “aim higher” by focusing on these congresswomen’s policies rather than their personal backgrounds.

Tellingly, Trump said he disagreed with that softer approach. He asked rhetorically: “What am I supposed to do, wait till we get someone else… in higher office?”

Trump’s strategy is to divert attention from his failed policies and offer “red meat” to his political base. He has been a master at playing to the prejudices of his base, which believes immigration has changed America for the worse.

Trump was reeling from the fact that a federal court struck down his attempt to include a citizenship question in the upcoming 2020 US Census. Hence, he wanted to show his base that he still cares about their concerns and zeroing in on the minority congresswomen, even though only one is an immigrant, was the easiest and most inflammatory way to do that.

Trump believes that the more the Democrats and “liberal elites” criticise him, the more his base will support him.

Most politicians take the position that to win re-election, it is important to widen one’s political base but not Trump. Knowing that Democrats despise him and that polls indicate that most independents are opposed to him, what he is counting on is that his base will come out in even greater numbers than in 2016. The way to encourage that is to constantly frame issues as “us versus them,” the latter meaning the new America that is religiously and ethnically much more diverse than it was 30 or 40 years ago.

Whether Trump went too far this time — even for his supporters — is an open question. On July 16, a CNN reporter interviewed a group of Republican women in Dallas, Texas, and all of them said they did not consider Trump’s comments as racist and agreed with Trump that the four should leave the United States if they “hate it so much.” These Republican women said they would vote for Trump in 2020.

At a large rally in North Carolina the following day, Trump’s supporters chanted “Send her back,” referring to Omar.  In response, the congresswoman called Trump a “fascist” and reminded people that the United States is supposed to be a country that allows “democratic debate and dissent.”

On the other hand, some Trump supporters, such as Anthony Scaramucci, who served briefly as White House communications director, said on CNN that Trump’s comments were not only racist, for which Trump should apologise, but were also “obnoxious to Italian-Americans.”

Scaramucci and many other ethnic Americans know that the line “go back to where you came from” is an old ethnic slur that was hurled at their immigrant grandparents and it should not be resurrected by a US president. This may why Trump subsequently tried to distance himself from the chant.

This is significant in that, although Trump’s rural base of support tends to come from whites of Anglo-Saxon or Scotch-Irish backgrounds, some of his urban and suburban supporters are from ethnic backgrounds whose families came from southern and eastern Europe. They spent the last couple of generations becoming “American” and believe that the government should not be giving “handouts and special privileges” to newcomers that their own ancestors did not receive.

In 2016, many of them supported Trump but when Trump uses such prejudicial lines, it touches a raw nerve for some.

US Representative Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from New Jersey, said on the House floor: “We know who he (Trump) is. The question is: ‘Who are we? Are we still the country of immigrants?’”

Some of Trump’s supporters will undoubtedly say we should no longer welcome immigrants, especially those of Muslim background and those who do not look like they do but, thankfully, most Americans see immigrants as a positive contributor to the United States and reject demagoguery.

The key question is: Which America will it be, the tolerant one or the intolerant one? Unfortunately, the occupant in the White House is doing his best to stoke support for the latter.

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